Something To Believe In 

Postmortem for the XFL, and an analysis of the NBA debate.

Don't I feel stupid? A couple of weeks ago I was confidently predicting the XFL's direction for the coming season. I was forecasting which direction the league would go, on TV and on the field. I said it would stabilize and it would become the minor league of professional football.

I admit it, I was suckered. I made a damning mistake for a sportswriter. I believed. That belief colored what I thought and said on the subject.

The XFL was good, I thought. It would persevere. The deluge of media criticism would slack off when the new league carved its place and secured its fan base. XFL football would go on in spite of its meager television ratings.

But I was for the league. There were a great many more sportswriters against it. Worse, my belief in the league's supposed passion for "smashmouth" football for the fans meant that I gave only marginal credence to the monetary forces behind it. Instead, the XFL's head men -- WWF's Vince McMahon and NBC's Dick Ebersol -- had their eyes firmly on the ink used in the account books. When the numbers turned too deep a shade of red, it was Game Over.

The failure of the XFL brings to mind the similarities between McMahon and Vancouver Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley. Only a year ago, both said they knew their respective ventures would lose money but that they were commited to staying the course. Now both say that the price was too high. They were just kidding about swallowing that debt. Commitment meant little in light of multimillion dollar losses.

The two men had good enough intentions. However, reality got in the way. It seems fair to think about the NBA Now team in the same light. It is apparent they want a good deal for Memphis. But has the belief in this dream-like opportunity affected their judgment? Do they believe in this so much that they might ignore reasons against the proposed deal?

In today's big-league market, professional sports have evolved into a sociological maze with megabucks guarding the gates. A good many people get their hopes and dreams mixed up. Those who love sports see a better world on the field of play. Life is more understandable because the better team wins, loyalties are easily forged, and hard work pays off.

On the other side of the ball are those who say it's too much money. The game is only for the rich. Memphis won't support a team. The NBA is full of wealthy, spoiled children. Memphis doesn't need a big-league team to be big-time. There are too many problems in this city to worry over a new arena. The Pyramid is good enough. And so on.

The so-called naysayers' point of view is as strongly held (and arguably, as valid) as that of those who support the franchise coming to Memphis. And it's certainly no more myopic than the wishful thinking of those who somehow believed that the public would quickly and complacently ante up the money for a shiny new arena.

What everyone needs to do is to take a hard look at what is actually proposed. If we can read the numbers without wearing belief-colored glasses and see that they will work, then so be it. If they won't, let's move on.

The NBA is examining the realities right now, and it's not being done because of some romantic notion that Memphis is someplace special. Basketball is the league's business and the NBA brass will do what it has to do in order to make money -- or at least stop losing it hand over fist -- no matter how many cities it has to alienate. That's why they're allowing Heisley to move from Vancouver in the first place. But make no mistake, the league is waiting for an arena. If that doesn't happen, neither does the Express.

The pursuit team also seems to be learning to work with the realities of the situation. They've heard the criticism and are making adjustments. The inclusion of more private dollars toward the arena is an indication of that. These are self-made men. They know their worth and they know business. They also know that they've come too far to screw this up. While the state Senate has not fallen over itself to help Memphis, it at least has not rejected the idea of state assistance at some level. Most City Council and County Commission members now seem to support the idea of the deal, if not the means to make that idea work.

But objectivity is still missing from the debate. Those for the NBA and those opposed each provide a scenario spun in their direction. Instead of the Memphis NBA debate being a battle of facts, it has become a battle of beliefs and slogans. Those for or against the proposition repeat faithfully the numbers supplied by their own camp.

What's needed is an arbiter who listens to both sides of the argument and comments from a position of relative objectivity. I could argue that the media should perform that role. In a perfect world, it would. But I have already admitted to the contrary. So shoot me; at least I understand I'm biased. Do all the players involved understand the same thing? n

You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at chris@memphisflyer.com.

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